Thursday, September 16, 2010

Forget print, it's Journalism that is dead

As people continue to debate the possible futures for journalism and newspapers a common refrain is heard - it’s not newspapers that matter, it’s the quality journalism that goes into them. Everywhere one turns, it seems someone is bemoaning the future of this quality journalism. Where will poor Mrs. Journalism go? Consensus seems to be that we can lose the print, and maybe some respected daily newspapers won’t make the transition online due to the current small returns from online advertising, but we need to salvage quality journalism. Some have even suggested that the government get involved with some Pulitzerian Buyout scheme. This is all pretty curious stuff, however, considering just how low the public pegs their respect for journalists (and the media generally) in nearly every poll. Where did all this journalism love suddenly come from?

Whenever lots of people quickly agree on something that seems so evident, they are usually not only wrong, but also denying something painfully obvious that’s staring them right in the face. I think here it’s this whole notion of quality journalism existing at the major daily newspapers around the country. Now this is a tall order, and I’ll concede in advance that there are exceptions, but I think we need to call BS on this nonsense and focus our energies on creating something better.

I read two newspapers every day of the week. I read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, in print, before I do anything else. I also read dozens of blogs, trade-journals, Tweets and other web media daily. I read a lot, mostly about film, old and new media, the arts and the nonprofit sector as my career has been focused in these areas. I care a lot about certain issues, like copyright, piracy, arts policy, technology, open source software, open education, film delivery systems and the general state of the film industry. On many of these issues, I would say that I am relatively well-versed in the arguments both for and against my position (when I even have one) and could easily tell you where to go if you want to hear the other side of whatever issue is being debated. I mention all this because whenever I read an article about ANY of these issues in the mainstream press (NYT, WSJ, USA Today, etc.) the journalist usually has the story completely wrong. Not sometimes, but usually, as in more often than not. They are either completely writing the press release of some special interest group, haven’t researched the issue well enough and missed the most important parts, have generalized it to the point of silliness either because they don’t trust their reader’s intelligence or want to not offend or done all of the above and worse. Out of all of the writers I read on these subjects, I can think of only one who doesn’t do this consistently, and that’s Walt Mossberg of the WSJ. But he is usually writing product reviews and answering tech questions, which doesn’t fall in the camp I am complaining about. When he does consider some larger issue in the industries he covers (like net neutrality), he usually gets it right, or at least intelligently writes about the different arguments so you can decide. That’s one reporter out of hundreds that I read consistently.

The problem is, if you start to talk to anyone in any field that is quite knowledgeable about a subject, they’ll usually agree with this complaint. My wife is in the healthcare field and whenever I point out an article I think is interesting about a subject, she can point out all the flaws and missing information in thirty seconds. I have friends in the business and banking worlds who say the same thing. Same with real estate, law and just about any profession I have informally surveyed. It appears that the journalism in the newspaper only seems good to those who don’t know much about a subject. I don’t know much about gold pricing, so am I to trust what the New York Times said about it this weekend? Not unless someone can tell me they know that better than they know copyright issues. I shudder to think about what is wrong with the political and war coverage, or anything else that really matters. Oh, wait, I do know about that quality - journalism’s incompetence in those arenas was proven pretty handily in the run-up to Iraq and again in the reporting of the lead-up to the last election.

Perhaps it’s time we start to acknowledge that it’s not just print that’s dead, but perhaps good journalism as well? Perhaps we should stop wringing our hands over the future of newspapers and magazines, and start thinking about how we can revive the best of earlier journalistic practices and nurture the few good examples we have out there from the new media. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how this could begin, but this is a long post already - what do you think? Am I reading all the wrong things and missing all the great journalism out there? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

The gist of your argument seems to be summarised when you say "It appears that the journalism in the newspaper only seems good to those who don’t know much about a subject". Have you considered that that is, in fact, the mass audience?

One of the important things about journalism is that it interprets a subject precisely FOR the people who don't know much about it!! So of course an expert will find information missing from an article about their field of expertise - it is not aimed at them.

If this is the "good journalism" which is "dying" - well, it was ever thus.

Lina Srivastava said...

Referencing Anonymous' comment, there's quite a gap between interpreting and abstracting information for a mass audience and simply getting the information wrong. Yesterday I posted a tweet relating two vastly different subjects-- the first, an interview at of Jon Stewart and his role as the country's jester and satirical media watchdog; the second, a post by Jillian C. York (from the Berkman Center and Global Voices) about the misguided media hype around Haystack, a technology tool promising censorship circumvention that misfired disastrously ( The common thread between those two pieces, and part of what I think Brian is arguing, is that media hype and irresponsibility are ultimately damaging regardless of the field being described and regardless of the audience.

I've been hearing a lot about the death of print and MSM media too-- I'm not sure the shift away from a particular business model for delivering fact and opinion is so very dreadful in the long-term, even though I'm not sure new media is ready to pick up the mantle just yet, given how siloed and niche it can be. But in terms of solutions for how journalism in conducted, I think there need to be some drivers for accountability. Also, while I think I think you can still be agile as a journalist even if you get your facts straight, maybe, as producers and consumers, we should sacrifice just some of the immediacy for accuracy.

MTeplitsky said...

Ecellent post - clarifying my own thoughts on this matter. Nice to have you back